"Strategy?" Whitney gasped. "Going well?"
"Perfectly. You’ve been sitting here looking beautiful and vulnerable, and Clayton can’t tear his eyes off you when he thinks you aren’t looking. But it’s time for you to do something to get him off alone with you."
Whitney’s heart soared precariously. "He can’t tear his eyes-? Oh, Stephen, are you certain? I don’t think he even knows I’m here."
"He knows you’re here," Stephen said, laughing. "Not that he doesn’t wish to God you weren’t! In fact, I can’t recall ever seeing him this furious. Now it will be up to you to push his anger beyond the limits of his control."
"What?" Whitney whispered. "Dear God, why?"
They had reached the entrance of the dining room, but Stephen turned and paused before a portrait on the wall opposite the double doors; their backs were in full view of the diners who were already seated at the table. He gestured at the painting as if pointing out its merits to Whitney. "You have to make him furious enough to leave the table and take you with him. If you don’t, as soon as dinner is over, he’ll find some excuse to draw Vanessa and my mother off somewhere else, and simply leave you with me."
The prospect of actively trying to engage Clayton in verbal combat filled Whitney with an odd mixture of fear and anticipation. She reminded herself of what Emily had said about not being meek, and told herself bracingy that if demure Elizabeth Ashton could do it, so could she. "Stephen," she said suddenly, "why are you doing this?"
"There’s no time to go into that now," Stephen replied, guiding her toward the dining room. "But remember this-no matter how angry he is, my brother is in love with you. And if you can get him alone, I think you’ll be able to prove it to him."
"But your mother will think I’m the gauchest female alive if I deliberately provoke him."
Stephen grinned boyishly at her. "My mother will think you are brave and wonderful. Just as I do. Now courage, young lady! I’m expecting to see more of the gay, spirited female I watched at the Kingsleys’ the other night."
There was just time for Whitney to flash an astonished, grateful look at him as he led her to her place at the table. As Stephen seated her, Clayton remarked with withering sarcasm, "It’s kind of you finally to join us."
"It was kind of you to ask me, your grace," Whitney returned pointedly.
Clayton ignored her and nodded to the servants to begin serving. He was seated at the head of the table, with his mother on his right, and Vanessa on his left. Whitney was next to the duchess, and Stephen took a place opposite Whitney, beside Vanessa.
As the servant poured champagne into Whitney’s glass, Clayton drawled caustically, "Leave the bottle next to Miss Stone. She is overly fond of champagne, as I recall."
Whitney’s spirits gave a leap of joy-Clayton was no longer able to ignore her! Surely he must still care for her to be angry enough to say such a thing. She smiled enchantingly at him over her glass and sipped the bubbly wine. "Not overly fond of champagne. Although at times it does help to reinforce one’s courage."
"Really? I wouldn’t know."
"Ah yes, you prefer whiskey to reinforce yours," she quipped as he lifted his glass to his mouth. His eyes narrowed ominously and Whitney quickly looked away. Please love me, she implored him silently. Don’t make me go through this for nothing.
"Do you play the pianoforte, Whitney?" the duchess asked, nervously stepping in to cover the charged silence.
"Only if I wish to give offense," Whitney replied with a shy smile.
"Do you sing then?" her grace persisted in sheer desperation.
"Yes," Whitney laughed, "but without the slightest attention to tune, I’m afraid."
"Really, Miss Stone," Vanessa drawled, "it’s extraordinary to meet a gently reared Englishwoman who has not been taught either to sing or to play. Exactly what are your accomplishments?"
"Whitney is a proficient flirt," Clayton interjected scathingly, answering Vanessa’s question himself. "She is conversant in several languages and could undoubtedly do a creditable job of cursing fluently in all of them. She plays a fair game of chess, a poor game of solitaire, and is a capable horsewoman when deprived of her crop. She claims to excel with a slingshot-a talent for which I can’t vouch firsthand, and she is a convincing actress-a talent for which I can. Have I treated you fairly, Whitney?" he snapped.
"Not entirely, your grace," Whitney said softly, stinging from the cruel whips of his words even though she was smiling. "Surely my chess game is better than ‘fair.’ And if you doubt my skill with the slingshot, I shall be pleased to demonstrate it to you-providing that you volunteer to be my target, as I have just been yours."
Stephen gave a sharp crack of laughter and his mother croaked, "Have you attended many social functions since you’ve come back from France?"
Whitney felt Clayton’s scorching gaze on her and could not quite meet it. "Many parties and balls. Although no one has given a masquerade, and I particularly enjoy them. I believe my lord duke enjoys them equally-"
"Do you also enjoy weddings?" Vanessa asked her smoothly. "If so, we shall be certain to invite you to ours."
The silence of an ancient tomb settled over the table Whitney tried valiantly to continue eating but could not swallow past the lump of desolation swelling in her throat. She looked miserably at Stephen, who shrugged imperturbably, and arched a brow in Clayton’s direction. She knew that Stephen meant for her to continue, but she couldn’t now. It was over. As transparent as it would be to everyone when she pleaded sudden illness, Whitney couldn’t bear to stay at that table. She was too bruised and battered to care that everyone would know that the announcement of Clayton and Vanessa’s betrothal was the reason she was leaving.
She took her napkin off her lap and put it on the table beside her plate. As she reached down to slide her heavy chair back, a feminine hand suddenly came to rest over hers. The duchess gave her fingers a brief, encouraging squeeze, then held them tightly in a gesture that clearly said, "Stay and finish what you have begun."
Whitney smiled uncertainly, hesitated, then replaced her napkin. She glanced at Clayton, who was moodily contemplating the wine in his glass, then at Vanessa. Whitney couldn’t bear to think of Clayton married to such a haughty beauty-not when she herself loved him so much, and had come this far, in this embarrassing fashion, to tell him so. She thought of Clayton holding Vanessa in his arms and kissing her in that intimate way of his, and that made Whitney angry and jealous enough to stay.